Wireless unleashes learning: School district expanding cord-free, interactive technology

Posted: Monday, December 07, 2009

Wireless Internet gives Savannah Anchinges courage.

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Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Skyview freshman DJ Collier works on a writing assignment on one of the school's wireless-enabled laptop computers in a career exploration class earlier this month.

In Matt Fischer's career class at Skyview High School in Soldotna, every student, including 14-year-old Anchinges, has a laptop equipped with wireless Internet. The laptops don't have big, bulky monitors that the students can cower behind, hoping Fischer won't call on them.

Instead, the technology actually encourages class participation.

On the day before Thanksgiving, Fischer showed a short segment of a movie and then flipped the lights on so the class could discuss what they had just seen. To get the discussion going, he posed a poll question.

The students opened their laptops and submitted their answers to the question. The projector screen in the front of the room showed Fischer when each student had weighed in, but it did not reveal how the student answered.

Anchinges said she likes answering questions wirelessly because she can give her true opinion without having to worry about what other students think.

"In talking to the class, sometimes you want to go with what everyone else is saying," Anchinges said. "I tend to be a little shy."

Fischer said by polling students and letting them think about their answer before having to share with the rest of the class, his students become sure of themselves, and it results in a better discussion.

"When doing health stuff especially, kids won't answer. But once they vote, they feel confident," Fischer said. "It gets the students who usually don't feel comfortable talking in class involved."

Once thought to be big-time distractions to students, personal laptops, iPhones and all other gadgets with wireless Internet access could now be seen as valuable tools in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

The district has nearly finished equipping its schools with wireless networks, and that is changing the way lessons are taught, administrators and teachers agree.

Having wireless Internet access brings computers into a classroom project without having to be the focus, Skyview Assistant Principal Curtis Schmidt said.

"You can be sitting around in a discussion forum and all have the same document up on your computer," Schmidt said.

Nikiski High School Principal John O'Brien said he thinks having wireless makes teachers more effective.

"Teachers are able to be more mobile in a room," he said. "And with AirLiners attached to SMART Boards, they can be anywhere in the room and change something on the overhead."

The district has spent about $700,000 on wireless installation districtwide, according to Information Services Director Jim White, and it plans on allotting additional stimulus money to pay for about 850 more laptops.

Wireless Internet in the schools stemmed from the idea of giving every Nikiski High School student access to a laptop, according to White. The school board funded the small project, realized it would be difficult to expand it to the entire district, but saw the benefits of making the Internet readily available in school.

"It was a good pilot for us to learn some key things," White said.

And now the schools can hardly imagine life without it, some say.

"We love our wireless," said O'Brien. Nikiski was the first school in the district to go completely wireless, and O'Brien said it has opened up educational resources.

"It's freed up our computer labs for projects that require different types of software like Word. Kids can do research from their own classrooms without tying up the computers in the media center."

The dynamics of group projects has also changed with wireless, according to Schmidt.

"Kids can be right next to each other or they can be updating something from different floors of the building," he said.

Makinna Halverson, 14, likes being more organized because she can do most of her work on a laptop.

"You get to do stuff without forgetting papers," she said while writing her answer to a short essay question that she would submit to Fischer wirelessly. "It remembers all the projects that you have worked on."

White assured that the wireless networks in the schools were protected and could be closely monitored.

"Everyone has to sign into it just like they do when logging onto a school computer," he said.

Skyview purchased software for teachers that allows them to control precisely what their students can and cannot view on the network.

When used effectively, many in education believe that the Internet connects to students in a way that some things never will.

"Kids are different. They learn different. Technology is a way that they learn," White said. "It's a way that engages them, and we believe that it's an effective tool."

Reporter Andrew Waite can be reached at andrew.waite@peninsulaclarion.com

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